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Talking Real Education Reform

Putting children first should not be a difficult political choice.

Technology for Math Study Should Begin Around Third Grade

There are those in education today who espouse the unlimited use of technology at all levels, for all grades, for all ages. Just give the kids tablets, i-Pads, and computers, they say. Give the kids calculating machines, no matter how young the kids are. These “educators” are wrong.

The late Steve Jobs, of Apple Incorporated, recognized that technology use should be limited when engaging young children.

Much of the Common Core rhetoric centers around the falsehood that kids “don’t have to memorize facts anymore.” What a load of bunk!

There are tried-and-true algorithms that assist kids in learning the language of numbers. Arithmetic takes practice. Kids have to practice their lessons. Calculators really have no place in first grade.

The real shame in the American system of education is that we have actually convinced ourselves that the preparation of primary school teachers does not include arithmetic. Just “learn how to teach,” the theory goes, and you’ll reach your students without a bunch of “facts” to get in the way. Rubbish!

Admittedly, we don’t just memorize facts to learn the language of math. But those who bellow “we don’t drill and kill anymore” would do well to teach math to a 17-year-old kid who has no idea what a decimal point stands for, or teach math to an 11-year-old who has no idea that the value of 35 is precisely halfway between 20 and 50, or even halfway between 30 and 40. The learning of the language of mathematics requires practice and repetition, particularly in the early years.

To that end, the divisions used within the “K through 12” system by school counselors in my state of Kansas aptly lend themselves to the divisions that are appropriate for managing the use of calculators. We at Real Math Standards embrace these age (or grade) divisions. Clearly, we don’t teach six-year-olds the same way we teach 16-year-olds.

We should replace “drill-and-kill” with “drill-and-THRILL!” Practice does not have to be a killer. Practice, in the hands of a skilled teacher, is, indeed, thrilling!

So, here are our recommendations for the use of calculators in math class:

K-2 Early Primary – We recommend no calculator use in the practice of arithmetic skills. Admittedly, we “never say never.” For example, some kids on the autism spectrum or with certain degrees of Asperger’s Syndrome actually respond better to tablets and inanimate electronic devices than to people. We are just learning about this very interesting phenomenon. Genuinely gifted or talented youngsters should not be discouraged from calculator use, at any age. However, most kids should simply push a pencil across a page and think and read while they do it. Widespread data reinforces time-tested approaches to learning the tenets of numbers; holding a pencil and writing while thinking about numbers works very, very well for most students. Kids learn the language of numbers with practice.

3-5 Primary – We recommend limited use of calculators in the practice of arithmetic skills. Examples for the limited use would include calculations for long division with more than two digits in the divisor, and for discussions of the distinctions between rational and irrational real numbers. The language of numbers is enhanced with practice as much as it is with adventure and exploration. It is toward the end of these primary years that most children begin to approach competency with abstract ideas.

6-8 Intermediate – Calculator use should be monitored; arithmetic skills must be practiced through primary and intermediate grades. Reliance on calculators for basic computations is discouraged. Certain arithmetic facts should be committed to memory. We still practice arithmetic.

H.S. Secondary – Unlimited calculator use. By now students should have mastered arithmetic.

Not every child, obviously, crosses from primary-to-secondary in the progression from eighth grade to high school. Our systems need to put kids first, not the “system” itself.

Exceptionable circumstances abound, of course. Outliers, as we like to term those outer reaches of our distributions in math, include kids who take a calculator and figure out square roots at age five. It happens. You might even hear that child say, “It’s a kind of division, isn’t it?” Such an event actually occurred according to a friend of mine who works in the College of Engineering at Wichita State University. She immediately got out blocks and taught her son the Pythagorean theorem. His joyous response was, “Oh Mommy, why can’t school be like this?” Why, indeed.

​It turns out that the keys to fixing American education are not more rigorous academic standards, per se, but more people who understand the language to be learned.

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